By Jack Slocumb
In her recent book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit asserts that “– -walking focuses not on the boundary lines of ownership that break the land into pieces but on the paths that function as a kind of circulatory system connecting the whole organism. Walking is, in this way, the antithesis of owning. It postulates a mobile, empty-handed, shareable experience of the land….”
It’s a take on the encounter of the world experienced in the life of the foot traveler that, for me, hauntingly describes what it is like to hike around the innards of the rolling, sparsely forested, plateau of the region north of the Dolly Sods Wilderness: you are so aware of pure walking, of really moving over ground, of the blessed absence of borders and restrictions.
This spread out imagery has, of course, become a signature terrain of the West Virginia Potomac Highlands and, in fact, is what most people associate with the Dolly Sods – and not the forest covered Red Creek canyon to the south which now comprises the major portion of the officially designated Dolly Sods Wilderness.
There’s not much in the way of this sort of territory in the Mid-Atlantic. But it’s an experience you yen for once in a while. Not that the end upon end miles of trails that lace through the sheltering woodedness of the Monongahela and other national forests and parks in the Appalachians aren’t sufficient unto themselves – because they are – it’s just that a sense of expansiveness is a good thing to have to provide aesthetic balance. For sure, the woods is mysterious, spirits lurking off the trail, voices, eyes in the shadows just beyond cast of firelight. But such blatant openness as you have in Dolly Sods North, which is what I’ve taken to calling it now for lack of a better name, has its own kind of inscrutability. It’s just different,
Here, I think, it’s the trance of perspective, of the wide angle lens: the mirage-like little hardwood ridges and knolls in the distance which seem to lose themselves in one another, the long empty soggy flats full of sphagnum and cranberries edged by carpets of blueberry and huckleberry bushes, and random groves of trembling aspen saplings and mountain ash. It’s the grassy hillsides, the punctuation of red spruce and conglomerate boulders all over which give the countryside a rugged subarctic heroism, the always beating sun, and the unremitting northwesterly wind scouring and desiccating the country and misshaping everything in its path. The borealness of it, the very strange expectation of spotting a caribou herd in a valley or appearing suddenly over the crest of a hill, and the winter tinged silence, despite the wind, hanging over the whole land.
For winter is never far away here. Its pall, its harshness, is everywhere.
Fully exposed to the raging of the seasons and hovering at about 4000 ft. just on the other side of the ragged edge of the Allegheny Front, from the air, this area has the appearance of being the mashed down southern end of a long ridge which begins near Cumberland, Maryland. It is a raw land, with a labored existence – which, I think, is another key to understanding why we are so transported by it: the purified, clean beauty of survival, of burnishment.
People can very easily slip into ceremonies here. Some good friends of mine, Hugh and Ruth Rogers, and some of their kin are folks were apparently beckoned recently by the great ritual possibilities suggested in this windy and bright plain. Ruth told me that one of their sons was married at Bear Rocks on the edge of the Allegheny Front escarpment. It was right there within sight of the signature Dolly Sods flag trees – red spruce with limbs bent round to the east by the implacable winds as if the branches might be pointing to all the valleys and mountains in the sweep of view from these ledges, as though they could be a kind of a visual metaphor for what will make up the life of a marriage. A kind of geographic foresight of the up and down psychological and spiritual journey that a couple will travel in one another’s close company. And, well, if nothing else, just a damn good spot to get hitched, where heaven and earth so seamlessly merge their energies. I wasn’t there, mind you, but this is what popped into my head when I heard about it.
I have brought my leather Taos drum up here, too. I burn a little Sage or Sweetgrass and beat out a heartbeat rhythm someplace where the sound comes back to me, as though the rocks were chanting an antiphon, and then patiently practice calling on the powers of animals, of the winged and the four legged, and of the four directions. It’s a nice thing to do. There is some very big medicine to be had in these parts.
The thrall of this wonderful wilding landscape is, of course, a paradox. Because much of the present scenery here owes to the almost complete decimation, through timber harvesting in the early 1900’s, of what was reportedly a thick red spruce forest which once grew in this environment and towered over an extensive open wattle of boreal bogs and beaver meadows. The harvesting era was then followed by unchecked fires that raged for years, charring even the topsoil. The extent of the spruce forest of that time is not known, although there is ample evidence left behind that harvesting was fairly widespread and took place here in a zealous and greedy way. The fires following the loss of the forests are remembered well by old timers in the area.
And so what we see in many parts of Dolly Sods North, then, for all intents and purposes, could be a primary succession, comprised of an interesting assemblage of cold climate adapted plants making their way up from almost bare rock. And the presence of this kind of vegetation that replaced the spruce stands might then contribute significantly to the Canadian Shield Zone tundra like feel you get when you first look agape out over this countryside.
But what I will never see in my lifetime, however, is the return (whatever its extent) of the thick red spruce forest drape – as I have mentioned, the apparent climax community of this diverse glacial era relic. Children and even great grandchildren will not see it. Maybe in ten generations somebody will. Maybe it will take longer. Nobody knows,
But Dolly Sods North is one geography for which, strangely, I bear no malice for its history of human impact – an attitude which from an outspoken purist when it comes to the out of doors, I have found a little puzzling. But now, I believe that I know the reason I am not concerned so much with that legacy.
The notion I have is that the carnage left behind by the timber barons returned this land to an even more primal, demiurgic condition that could quite possibly antedate by millennia the red spruce forest found by the generation preceding farmer Dahle (from whom the name Dolly Sods is apparently derived). I have it in my imagination sometimes that if I had been here gallivanting around during the early part of the last ice age, maybe I might have been witness to a panorama very similar to what we scan today – only maybe with wooly mammoths, hulking short faced bears, lumbering sloths, or slinking sabre toothed cats to distract my attention from the view. And also, perhaps, (who knows?) some wandering bands of people heaving spears tipped with Clovis points.
It is this overwhelming sense of throwback in time that rivets me to this territory, and I momentarily forgive the transgressions of the cross-cut saw, the steam skidder, and the Shay engine. For an even passing awareness of the epic span of climatological history (combined, of course, with a little poetic license) seems to allow a person to psychologically maneuver around seeing the results of ecological disaster and, instead, to become immersed in an unfolding everywhere of a savagely miscreant and, at the same time, inexplicably delicate, beauty.
What many people may not be aware of, though, is that this grand 6169 acre public commons did not actually become a part of the federal inventory until 1993. For many years it was owned by the CSX Corporation and technically off limits to roam around in except by permit. I remember those days when I hiked with the Sierra Club and the irritation of having to write each time for permission. Of course, people used it anyway. There were no armed guards around that I know of checking permits and no barriers except intermittent no trespassing signs – and hunter’s bullets and bears had a field day with these.
No doubt, at some point, CSX began to view the parcel as a burden and not so much as a potential financial asset (for what reason other than this does a corporation have to own land?) and finally considered seriously the Nature Conservancy’s entreaties to purchase the whole tract. This sale seemed to spur on the National Forest Service, whose management pendulum was by then beginning to swing more in the direction of public recreation, to acquire the acreage from the Nature Conservancy in two purchases.
One of the reasons I am writing about this is that I’ve been spending more and more time exploring around Dolly Sods North lately, and my fondness for writing, for whatever its worth may be, has always been for to extend somehow through words the hours I have of such Otherness. There have been a couple of long day hikes, an environmental education program one Saturday (part of the Conservancy’s public outreach), and three backpacking trips. Good enough grist for the literary mill.
The last overnighter was in late September in the company of my friend, Ed Gates, a Wildlife and Habitat Biologist with the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory.
After shambling in along the eroded Bear Rocks trail, we turned onto an old jeep road which heads toward the confluence of the right fork of Red Creek and Dobbin Creek. Not too far along this trace we managed to settle ourselves into one of the few premier campsites that exist in Dolly Sods North – snugly hidden from view in a little spinney of red spruce trees next to Red Creek.
Although Ed pitched his tent in the shelter of the trees, I set up just outside, facing the creek as it comes sliding quietly around a bend – and the stark shrubby emptiness that I wanted to expand into. Most times I sleep without a tent, but dew settles heavily in the Dolly Sods, and I needed something over top of me.
Not far away, across the wide expanse, were hardwoods with leaves turned into muffled hues – dusky maroons and oranges – as though the autumnal cycling this year was to be more subtle and unobtrusive with summer drying up noiselessly, without fanfare. It would probably be the first thing I caught sight of in the morning to ease me into wakefulness. I liked that idea.
After establishing ourselves as the occupants of this site, we spent the balance of the day walking. We walked and walked and walked. Because that’s what you do here. We headed south along the muddy old jeep trail, around an abandoned beaver dam, across Dobbin Creek, and then up a slope. We occasionally saw other hikers and people on horse droppings. They were mostly far away from us. It seems that there is a lot of horseshit and hoof prints in Dolly Sods North these days, but it’s better than off road vehicles. It’s strange, too, that the presence of other people in this highland environment, whether on foot or on horseback, as big as it is, still makes one feel a bit crowded.
Our trip continued on in the waning afternoon sun and vagrant breezes up to the top of the little knoll above the Dobbin Creek crossing where we could look back and take in the whole thing, the whole wild, wild range. It’s something you have to sit down for. It’s the view of an infinity, of an unrestrained spirit, of hope, forever beyond the ken of whatever words you try to pluck from language to describe it -what you come here for.
We went on as far as the Blackbird Knob Trail. We rested in the middle of the well worn track for a while and scarfed down a few trail bars so we would have a little extra energy to get us back. Ed ruminated about maybe funding a study in this location – something along the lines of spatial distribution of avian species in a disturbed Appalachian highland boreal environment – the ultimate in mixing business with pleasure, I thought.
We built a monstrous campfire that night, laying on great logs, and leaving me with some ecological guilt for turning so much biomass into carbon dioxide when I know that probably every bit of it is needed to replenish the soil. But I think we were just trying to keep winter at bay for a few more hours. We wound up talking as usual about what the hell has gone wrong with the world and the only fix seems to be returning here to remind us that there is a different life to be had.
It was moonless when I turned in. The Milky Way, at its brightest this time of year, seemed to be the Red Creek’s luminous counterpart in the sky. And there were Cassiopoeia, the Big Dipper, and the Great Triangle, too. Perfect. I left the front flap open so I could settle in with the cosmos and the little surgings of the creek.
When I waked, a thin lace of ice had crystallized on the tent fly, and the air hung in a heavy autumn silence everywhere. Still in my bag, I took a look far outside and saw ground mist lifting off – just barely revealing the line of pastel hardwoods in the distance. It seemed then that I was beholding the life of the wild at a very special time in its history.
In the fresh dewy moment of its beginnings. Amen.